Old World, New World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

With the contemporary emphasis on multiculturalism and on minority studies, it has become rather commonplace for academic historians and social scientists to denounce Eurocentric and Anglocentric perspectives. Increasingly, colleges and universities have replaced requirements in general American and European history with courses devoted to issues of race and ethnicity, often emphasizing the theme of “white privilege.” This point of view has promoted a strong tendency to minimize, sometimes even to deny, the importance of the Anglo-American relationship and the influences of Britain on American civilization. In Old World, New World, Kathleen Burk reminds us that for hundreds of years Britain was the primary source of the nation’s dominant culture and the model for its political institutions, as well as its most important trading partner and economic rival. Into the early twenty-first century, despite cultural differences and frequent disagreements, the two countries “were, nevertheless, more alike than any other two powers on the globe. And this instinctive feeling persists: there is a true love-hate Anglo-American special relationship.”

Historical accounts of bilateral relations between two countries have often been rather dull, but this is certainly not true of Burk’s lively written book. Based on fifteen years of teaching Anglo-American relations and more than seven years of research and writing, the book is filled with interesting details and hundreds of anecdotes. A partial list of notable topics includes the “lost colony” on Roanoke Island; the establishment of Virginia, Massachusetts, and other English colonies; the causes, battles, and outcome of the American Revolution; the War of 1812; disputes and agreements concerning the Canadian border; perceptions of British travelers in America; tensions that grew out of the U.S. Civil War; the Venezuelan Boundary Dispute; the Spanish-American War; the two world wars of the twentieth century; cooperation and conflict during the Cold War; and the various components of the contemporary war on terrorism. Old World, New World is a book that can be read with pleasure from cover to cover. In addition, it is also an excellent reference source for dependable and interesting summaries about particular topics.

When discussing the thirteen British colonies that became the United States, Burk emphasizes their great diversity in religion, economics, and geographical challenges. In spite of their diversity, however, she writes that they shared a number of things in common, including “an urgent and even reckless desire to own land.” All the colonists, moreover, enjoyed the benefits of the British Constitution, which included the Bill of Rights of 1689, and they took pride in “being part of a liberal empire, one whose power and glory derived from those very liberties which the Americans claimed as part of their birthrights.” Colonial charters typically promised that American settlers would “enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and natural Subjects . . . as if born within the Realm of England.” The charters recognized their right to have elected assemblies with the power to enact their own laws and tax policies.

Readers might reasonably take issue with some of Burk’s interpretations, such as her rather negative description of the Mayflower Compact of 1620. The Puritans affirmed that their purpose was the “advancement of the Christian faith” and “the honor of our King and country,” and they promised to establish “just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and officers” that were to be “convenient for the general good of the colony.” Burk denies that there was anything democratic about the Mayflower Compact. Rather, she writes that “the intention was to preserve authority in the hands of the self-chosen few. It was to be an oligarchy, not a democracy.” Everyone will agree, no doubt, that the Puritans shared seventeenth century political notions, envisioning neither women’s suffrage nor political participation by religious dissidents. Nevertheless, in view of the small number of voters in England at the time, it appears significant that forty-one of fifty-one male settlers signed the compact. Although vague about how the government would be organized, the wording of the compact appears to imply the idea of popular sovereignty, at least to some extent. There are, after all, degrees of democracy, and idealistic words, which are open to various interpretations, can have unexpected consequences for future generations.

Burk observes that the American Revolution has frequently served as an “American Foundation Myth,” a story of bravery and a contest between tyranny and liberty. Like most contemporary historians, she acknowledges that the historical reality was “infinitely more complicated” than this. At the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, the British...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 105, no. 1 (September 1, 2008): 17.

Foreign Affairs 87, no. 6 (November/December, 2008): 164-165.

History Today 58, no. 9 (September, 2008): 66.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 15 (August 1, 2008): 118.

Library Journal 133, no. 15 (September 15, 2008): 67-68.

Political Quarterly 79 (July, 2008): 438-458.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 29 (July 21, 2008): 153.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 21, 2008, p. 31.